Leaving the Church behind him, Thomas MacDonagh found a new calling almost by accident.
By Shane Kenna
Born in Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary in 1878, Thomas MacDonagh is one of the most fascinating characters behind the Easter Rising.
He was the child of a peculiar marriage of two national school teachers, his father a jovial drunkard with little interest in politics and his mother a devoted convert to Catholicism who instilled in her children a devotion to just causes.
Educated by the Holy Ghost Fathers at Rockwell College, Co Tipperary, MacDonagh developed a decided inclination for the missionary priesthood and applying to join the order. However, at no point, as has previously been asserted in the history of the Easter Rising, did MacDonagh become a priest or take any religious vows.
He was a surveilliant, which was an adolescent boy who showed potential to go further within the Catholic Church as a priest if he so chose. At Rockwell, however, MacDonagh drifted from the Church and battled a crisis of faith where he doubted the existence of a God and afterlife, and rejected much of the Church’s teachings.
Unable to stay at Rockwell, he left for Kilkenny where he worked as a teacher of English and French at St. Kieran’s College. It was here that he developed a lifelong love for the Irish language and experienced what he termed “a baptism in nationalism” at a meeting of the Gaelic League which he had intended to disrupt for “a lark”. ’
MacDonagh was involved in several political crusades including labour politics, women’s suffrage, and cultural nationalism. In 1908, he was hired as deputy principal in Patrick Pearse’s revolutionary educational project Scoil Éanna.
That same year, the Abbey Theatre produced his first play, When The Dawn is Come, ironically based on the theme of a rebellion led by a council of seven. Rubbing shoulders with W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, Francis Ledwidge, A.E. Russell, and Padraic Colum, he embraced the Dublin literary scene but was frustrated by his inability to be accepted as a serious poet or playwright.
In 1912, he accepted a position in University College Dublin teaching English literature, and strongly considered a PhD on the theme of language in Ireland. This PhD was published posthumously under the title ‘Literature in Ireland’, where MacDonagh asserted that the English language as spoken in Ireland was a new form of Irish and that a national literary culture could be written in English.
Inspired by the Ulster crisis in 1912, MacDonagh became a founding member of the Irish Volunteers and elected to its provisional committee.
He became commandant of the 2nd battalion, Dublin Brigade and director of training.
In April 1915, MacDonagh was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood and he recruited Éamon de Valera into the conspiracy. Discussing this with Eamonn Ceannt, who was skeptical about de Valera, MacDonagh prophetically said: “Don’t you worry about de Valera, he always lands on his feet.” The last man to be co-opted onto the IRB Military Council, it is wrongly assumed that MacDonagh knew nothing of the Rising until a few weeks beforehand. The evidence indicates he had been working on these plans with Joseph Plunkett prior to his co-option to the Military Council.
In charge of Jacob’s Factory on Easter Monday 1916, assumptions that MacDonagh’s garrison saw little action are not entirely correct. Although isolated, they were regularly engaged in sorties and sniper fire with Dublin Castle, and provided relief to Michael Mallin in the Royal College of Surgeons and de Valera at Boland’s Mills.
While the atmosphere in the Jacob’s garrison was tense, there were moments of levity too, with assembled volunteers organising céillí and reading circles. Here the rebels found a gramophone but, to their horror, the only record they could find was ‘God Save the King’.
As the Easter week wore on, the Jacob’s garrison became wholeheartedly dejected and it was recalled that MacDonagh, disheveled and worn-looking, had become more of a figurehead within the garrison, with real authority passing to his second-in-command, John MacBride. By Wednesday, the garrison stood on top of the roof of Jacob’s and saw the city ablaze, watching in horror as the British used heavy artillery to pound the distant GPO.
Throughout the course of the week, MacDonagh wrote extensive propaganda to keep the rebels’ spirits up, and rumours of German landings and national uprisings spread through the garrison. Resultant from this, when MacDonagh eventually agreed to a surrender, the garrison collapsed into visible pandemonium amidst calls to “fight it out, fight it out”, while one rebel, Peader Kearney, recalled men were in tears and others had become prostrate with disbelief.
Addressing his men for the last time, MacDonagh lamented: “We have to give in. Those of you in civilian clothes, go home. Those of you in uniform, stay on,you cannot leave.”
MacDonagh was sentenced to be executed in the Stone Breakers Yard at Kilmainham Gaol on May 3, 1916. Unable to see his wife Muriel, MacDonagh wrote to her hours before his execution, saying: “I am ready to die, and I thank God that I am to die in so a holy a cause. My country will reward my deed richly. I counted the cost of this, and I am ready to pay it.”
In what would become the most iconic execution of the Easter Rising, he addressed the firing squad and, offering them a cigarette, lamented: “I know this is a lousy job, but you’re doing your duty — I do not hold this against you.”
Turning to the officer in charge of the firing squad, he offered him his silver cigarette case, saying: “I won’t be needing this. Would you like to have it?’ Shortly after MacDonagh was shot dead, the British said:
“They all died well, but MacDonagh, he died like a prince.”
Shane Kenna is a historian of modern Irish history, whose books include Thomas MacDonagh in the O’Brien Press’s 16 Lives series on the executed leaders.